Ohio economy improves, but few seem to feel it

Michael A. Fletcher / The Washington Post /

Published Aug 9, 2012 at 05:00AM

CLEVELAND — Ohio’s unemployment rate has plummeted over the past three years and is now far below the national average, which might normally be cause for celebration.

But battered by long years of hard times, many voters in this state view the improvement as little more than a mirage: More than two out of three say the economy is either worse or the same as it was a year ago, according to a recent poll.

“Maybe there has been a leveling off,” said Daryl Johnson, 40, who has been in and out of temporary work since leaving his job at a now-defunct auto parts plant in 2005. “But I wouldn’t call it an improvement.”

Ohio is illustrative of the downside of a recovery that many people say they do not feel. There are some new jobs but, as the economy shifts, they do not always match workers’ experiences. Here, as in other manufacturing states, those changes may mean a permanent deflation of incomes and expectations.

The skepticism has not stopped President Barack Obama and Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney from rushing in to take credit for the upswing.

The candidates are offering sharply conflicting reasons for the improving economy, further confounding voters. Obama touts government action to save the auto industry as crucial to the recovery. Romney points to the small-government philosophy of GOP Gov. John Kasich for fueling it.

The explanation Ohioans end up believing could go a long way toward deciding the November election in this most pivotal of political battlegrounds, where voters have backed the winner in the past 10 presidential contests.

Complicating the equation for both candidates is that many voters here remain bruised by years of economic hardship, even as Ohio’s jobless rate has dropped from 10.6 percent in the second half of 2009 to 7.2 percent in June.

So the burning question for many voters is less who should receive credit for the improving economy than whether the improving economy is affecting their lives.

“I just filter out all of the campaign noise. I figure things are going to be what they are going to be, regardless of who’s in there,” said Johnson, who recently completed 38 weeks of training to be a pharmacy technician. “These days, job security is a perk. You might get it, but then again you might not.”

In repeated campaign visits to Ohio, Obama has said that the auto bailout saved much of the domestic car industry — which employs about 150,000 workers in the state — while bolstering the state’s manufacturing core.

Romney, meanwhile, has walked a tightrope. He has said that Ohio’s economic growth would be more robust absent Obama’s policies, which he says have stoked uncertainty among businesses, causing them to hold back on hiring.

At the same time, he points to Kasich’s initiatives, including lowering income taxes and reducing government, for promoting growth. If elected, he adds, he plans to bring a similar smaller-government approach to Washington.

“The improvement makes the economic arguments of both parties more complicated, and that will make an already competitive state more competitive,” said John C. Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

Changing industries

As the Ohio economy climbs from the recession’s depths, it is being transformed in ways that many workers find uncomfortable. Booming biotech clusters are creating new health-care products and unfamiliar jobs.

There is also a resurgence in auto manufacturing that has saved existing jobs more than it has created new ones, federal data show. In addition, the state is benefiting from a shale-gas boom that has brought new work to under-used steel mills and struggling rural enclaves, but many of the new drilling jobs are filled by out-of-state workers.

Two decades ago, manufacturing accounted for more than one in five Ohio jobs. Since then, the share of factory jobs in the state has shrunk by almost half. Meanwhile, per-capita incomes have not increased since 2007, when adjusted for inflation, and wages have slipped further below the national average. Overall, more than 100,000 jobs have vanished in the state in the past decade.

“Ohio did not bounce out of the 2000 recession” before the next one hit, said Mark Schweitzer, director of research for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland.

The consequence for many workers has been a prolonged period of high anxiety.

Nate Modie, 29, says he has been laid off half a dozen times. Most recently, he worked as a $22-an-hour welder, a trade he thought would offer a long career. But that proved to be wildly optimistic.

“It’s really terrible,” said Modie, who is training at Cuyahoga Community College to be a machinist qualified to craft medical devices. He hopes to find a position that pays $17 an hour. “It seems like once you get comfortable in a job, you’re back on the street.”

None of this has made him a big believer in politicians as agents of change. What he wants is someone who could re-create the job market enjoyed by his father, an iron worker for 32 years. But he is not sure who could do that.

“I think employers are very wary about hiring on,” he said. “It’s like they are scared to make an investment in human resources.”

Modie likes Obama, but he thinks the president has been ineffective in dealing with Republicans in Congress. “There’s just too much infighting,” he said.

Romney, meanwhile, leaves him uneasy. “He is too much of a businessman, too much of a suit,” Modie said. “From getting laid off so many times, it is usually people like him who are behind it.”

Others training for new health-industry jobs at Cuyahoga said they felt the same way. Jason Porter, 25, said the last good job he had was in 2009, when he was laid off from a $14-an-hour job in a diesel repair shop. Since then, he has worked doing home improvement with friends, then as a handyman for a small chain of thrift stores. “It was $11 an hour. No benefits. No nothing,” he said.

Visible improvement

Workers may have their doubts about how they will ultimately benefit, but the recent growth of Ohio’s economy is evident along Euclid Avenue on this city’s East Side.

Not long ago, this street was strewn with abandoned warehouses and other hulking relics evocative of the city’s proud industrial history and its long economic fall. Now, it is being resurrected as a thriving biomedical corridor.

Cleveland HeartLab made its name by developing a blood test that identifies the large pool of people at risk for heart attacks or strokes despite having normal cholesterol levels and blood pressure. The test, which tracks biomarkers for cardiovascular inflammation, has been a huge hit, allowing the company to expand from eight to 110 workers in just over two years.

The so-called health-tech corridor has attracted nearly $4 billion in investment in the past decade, including the huge Cleveland Medical Mart and Convention Center, which is nearing completion on the city’s once-forlorn lakefront.

“That doesn’t happen in Cleveland,” said Jake Orville, the company’s president and chief executive.

HeartLab’s explosive growth has led to the hiring of dozens of technicians and salespeople. It also has leased a 30,000-square-foot building and is, Orville boasts, the largest overnight and early morning delivery site in the city for UPS and FedEx.

“The best thing that ever happened to the city of Cleveland was this recent recession/depression,” said Fred Geis, a developer who built HeartLab’s headquarters. “We’re not a steel industry place anymore and, finally, we were able to rip the rearview mirror off.”

That has forced workers to remake themselves for an evolving economy. At NewBridge, a nonprofit that offers free vocational training for displaced workers and people trying to break into the workforce, the focus is on producing health-industry workers. The program is turning out a steady stream of pharmacy technicians and phlebotomists, the vast majority of whom are landing jobs right after graduation.

“What I think is occurring in the economy is change,” said Erin Pierce, 26, a recent NewBridge graduate who works at University Hospitals Case Medical Center. “And you have to prepare yourself for it.”

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